Wizards and witchery abound in the wickedly funny fantasy novels of Diana Wynne Jones. Over the years, the English writer has been best known for the Chrestomanci series, featuring the powerful magician of the same name. Recently, Wynne Jones gained a new group of fans when Japanese director Hayao Miyazake made her 1986 novel Howl’s Moving Castle into an animated film in 2004. Greenwillow is releasing House of Many Ways, a story set not long after the events chronicled in Howl’s Moving Castle and its 1991 sequel Castle in the Air, starring a bookish and somewhat grumpy girl called Charmaine and featuring an appalling villain known as the Lubbock. Bookshelf spoke with Wynne Jones via telephone at her home in Bristol, England.
What made you want to write another book that takes place in Howl’s world?
Well, I’d been sort of thinking about it for a long time, actually. I’ve had several tries at it, way back, soon after I wrote Castle in the Air. I’d always been intrigued by High Norland, and this king who was doing nothing except catalogue his books. And eventually thought ah, this is it, this is how it comes, we need Charmaine in there.
How did Charmaine come about?
Hard to say, really. It’s just that I wanted someone who was not usual, shall we say. Someone who had a difficult upbringing of the kind that a lot of people do these days. You know a lot of people nowadays don’t allow their kids to do anything, because it’s dangerous. So many kids are so sheltered that I thought, you know, this is the opposite of the child who has had nothing but misfortunes and abuse, and I thought they are sufferers just as much.
In the letter to the reader at the beginning of the book you describe at Charmaine as being “cross-grained.” That’s not a term that we use much in the U.S. Can you describe what that means?
Well, it means impatient with most of the way most people do things. And not very good-tempered with it.
So what was it like for you to return to Howl’s world?
Oh, it was enormous fun. I mean, I really enjoyed writing that book. It probably shows, actually. I just loved it. It wasn’t the same place, because I always feel, when I’m writing a book, which is set among the same people in the same world, that I’ve done what I’ve had to do in whatever place it was the first time, and I need another place. I wanted a kind of Alpine place, because it was quite different from the kind of lowland country town [that Howl’s Moving Castle is set in]. So it was all fresh and new and marvelous.
But I must say that a lot of things took me by surprise, when I was writing this book. I love this, when this happens, actually. The Lubbock took me totally by surprise!
Say more about the Lubbock. It was terrifying.
Yes, yes! He is, isn’t he. Or she. I don’t know. Since he lays eggs, I suppose it’s a she!
I cannot tell you how the Lubbock came about, because just suddenly there it was, in a Gentian flower, and rising to an enormous height and being absolutely appalling! You know, I was quite shaken by this. I had to kind of leave off and think about this, because it altered the whole story as I’d conceived it, actually.
It’s really one of the scariest characters you’ve ever written, in my opinion.
Yes, I think it probably is. And I wish I knew where it came from. But I don’t, I haven’t any idea. As I say, it just appeared. That’s the way I write, you know. I like to leave space where unexpected things can happen. But this was very, very terrifying and unexpected, too.
You’ve said you don’t start out with a thoroughly plotted-out book. What do you start out with, when you begin writing?
I start out with people very often. Also some very, very clear scenes from the middle of the book. And usually a notion of how it’s going to go in the end, but that isn’t always the case. But it’s the clear picture from the middle that’s the important bit, I think. In the case of House of Many Ways, it was the bit when Peter first comes in out of the rain into all the bubbles in the kitchen and Charmaine reaches out and shuts his mouth with a clop. Because that for some reason was a very enduring image and I knew that was in there somewhere. But as I say, the Lubbock, which came just before that, was completely uncharted.
When I used to go and visit schools I always used to shock the teachers because I used to tell the kids that I didn’t plan it out, I waited to see how we got from the beginning to the picture I’d got of the middle of the book, or somewhere into the book, anyway. They were always very shocked. Because they always insisted on all their kids planning it out in advance, and I did sort of plead with them that this was not always necessary. In fact, some people are better for making it up as it goes along.
If I try to plan anything out in that kind of detail it just goes completely blank on me. And I don’t understand what I’ve written as a plan. I just found a plan several weeks ago, actually, when I was looking through stuff to see what I’ve got. And I looked at this plan, and I knew it wasn’t any plan of any book that I’d actually written, and I could not understand a word of what I’d done. It was just like the map Charmaine tries to get to the palace with! All twisting and completely obscure. And I’d left little notes for myself which were also obscure. Goodness knows what I meant.
Many of the characters that take center stage in this novel have had smaller roles in the earlier books, especially Castle in the Air . Were you always aware of their back stories or is this something that came to you as you worked on the new book?
Well, I’m pretty well aware of their back stories. Usually my head is crowded with characters who have back stories and need to come center stage at some point. So I know about them pretty well.
Back when I first interviewed you, about 18 years ago, you told me that you wrote the first drafts of your books in longhand, sitting in your armchair. Do you still do that?
I do. It’s the only way I know how to work. Because I still find any kind of machine--a typewriter in the early days, and a computer nowadays--to be a sort of block between me and the story. I really have to make sure that there is the minimum. And since I’ve learned to write laboriously, as a child, it now is second nature and it doesn’t get in the way of what I’m saying. And so I really, really prefer that.
I mean I can write straight on to a machine but I don’t like doing that. It alters my style quite considerably. I find that on a machine my sentences get quite long and involved, and I don’t like that. Because it’s not easy for children to read. I mean, most of the time, I do study to make sure that there are sentences are not difficult to grasp. Because that seems to be the main secret about making easier to read... I mean, you want it chopped into lengths that you can handle.
So you write first in longhand, and then you rewrite a lot. Is that still so?
I do. I like only to do it twice, but most editors don’t share my point of view! Yes, I sit down in front of whatever machine it is, and I say “now this is the final--the perfect draft.” This takes a long time, because I have to go through everything in relation to every other bit, and do a lot of rewriting, actually. So, very slowly. Because it’s sort of every word, and every sentence, and every paragraph. But also every scene in relation to the rest of the book. Sometimes this is quite difficult to organize.
Actually. House of Many Ways didn’t [need a lot of rewriting]. It was quite surprisingly itself right from the beginning.
Do you find yourself working exclusively on one book at a time, or do you spend time thinking about books in other worlds?
Well, what seems to happen is like when you’re getting your teeth when you’re a kid, when the second teeth grow up underneath the little teeth. It’s like that. I don’t actually go try to think about it that much, because I know that something is happening down there. And what often happens, actually, is that somebody asks me for a short story while I’m in the middle of a book. This seems to happen quite a lot, lately. I don’t find any trouble in stopping for a while and writing the short story. If I’ve got an idea, that is. And I usually do seem to have. You know, one that’s not big enough to make into a long book. But meanwhile, something is happening in the primordial marsh at the bottom of our brain. I just wait patiently for it to pop up like a huge bubble or something.
Was House of Many Ways easy or difficult for you to write?
I suppose, it was sort of [in the] middle. Because at the point where the Lubbock arrived I suddenly realized that the way I’d been conceiving the plot was not the way it was going to go, so this made me have to recoup and think furiously. I always knew that Howl was going to turn up as a small boy, because I’d tried that in various other contexts, actually--my house is filled with heaps of half-written books and one chapters and things--and I’d tried that and I knew he was going to come in, and this was the perfect venue for him. So that part was moderately easy, but the way it all wove in was--well, I wouldn’t say it was horribly difficult, because I find that the difficult ones are the ones where you have a huge philosophical point to think through, but it wasn’t one of the easiest, no.
Can you talk a little bit more about Howl being disguised as a totally enchanting but infuriating toddler in House of Many Ways?
He’s odious, really! This originated from Howl’s love of being someone else. Even in Howl’s Moving Castle, I think it’s Calcifer who says he loves having different names and being different people. And I took it on from there and I thought about him being--this is what he’d love to be--an absolutely infuriating but beautiful child, because he is very attentive to his own looks, and it sort of developed from there. It was fun to do, actually, when I finally got him in the right context. I felt also that he needed a slight change from being forced to be a genie as he was in [Castle in the Air].
House of Many Ways seems to contain far fewer references to the traditional fairy tale than either Howl’s Moving Castle or Castle in the Air. Was this a conscious decision?
No, it was just the way it went. I was rather hoping a few more such things would come in, but they didn’t. It’s odd, because there are an incredible number of Alpine fairy tales and you’d think that they would all come in, but they never did. And, you know, there just wasn’t any place for them. It was odd.
I think it was that Lubbock appearing. Because I was expecting there would be more of that. I suppose the only thing that really is the fairy story of the mountains are the Kobolds. Kobolds are very big in mountain country. At least, they are small blue men, but they are considered to be everywhere.
Over the past several years, you’ve returned to the world of the Chrestomanci stories frequently. Is this an easier place for you to return to, than Howl’s world?
Well, no. It’s just that--or perhaps it is. It’s not a matter of returning to the place. It’s the kind of stories that fit there. It’s very difficult to make sure that Howl is in his own kind of place, that isn’t in any way coinciding with the Chrestomanci books. And that’s the thing. You have to keep them separate, because they are very separate kinds of universes. And yes, I suppose I’m generally more at home in the Chrestomanci world, but only because so many stories seem to fit there, not because of the nature of the world at all. I don’t know what it is, really. But I was very glad to be able to return, because I had always felt that there were several more Howl stories in there, somewhere.
Well, I was delighted that you returned there.
Yes, I was ever so pleased, too. It was enormous fun to do. There’s another Howl story that I’m sort of darting about with. I don’t know whether it will ever come to anything. I’ve had about three tries at it now. And that is my own take on The Tempest. I really want to do this. Because it seems to me that poor Miranda gets such a raw deal. One of my daughters-in-law is called Miranda and she thoroughly agrees with me.
And I think Prospero was horrible. Very few people seem to agree with me on this. What a managing, crude man he was. You know, enslaving creatures and things. And I don’t like that, and I want to have a revolution there. But I don’t know whether I’ll ever get that done, but Howl would certainly come in there.
Howl seems like the right person to make mischief on that island!
That’s right. Probably doing something to help poor Ariel, who did really have his hands full. He seems to be most unfairly burdened with work.
Speaking of Howl, what was it like for you when Howl’s Moving Castle was made into a movie? Did it bring more attention to the books?
Oh, quite a lot more. Up until then, the Chrestomanci books had all the attention, and oddly enough there’s never been any kind of movie of them.
Now the Howl books are being sought for all over the world, so that’s nice. And the procession of people, which was enormous already, has increased--doubled and tripled--of all the people who want to marry Howl. Now it seems to me that Howl would be one of the most dreadful husbands one could possibly imagine. But there are these thousands of girls who write and say “Is Howl real? I want to marry him.” All around the world. About the only place where they don’t seem to be wanting to marry him is India, I think. But everywhere else--Thailand, Taiwan, New Zealand, Spain, massive amounts from England and huge amounts from America too. It’s extraordinary.
So, any other movies or television shows in the works?
Well, I don’t know about in the works. There are always plans and they nearly always fall through. Each time I talk about them I touch wood. Because it would be nice to have a few more. There is somebody who is struggling with my book The Ogre Downstairs. If they do get to it, may make a wonderful film. I just hope they do. But there’s been no news of that for some time. I think he was set back horribly by the Hollywood writer’s strike.
And then there’s somebody who’s valiantly trying on a very small budget to do one of the Chrestomanci books. But I really don’t know how far she’ll get, because they always demand so much money from people who want to do that. I wrote to her just the other day and said “Look, I don’t care how much or rather how little you get to pay about this, because I want it done.” I said “Tell her that.” She said, “I will.”
My fingers are crossed too.
I do hope she does, because she seems terribly competent in this and has produced all sorts of plays and things. She’s one of those people who has been writing to me ever since she was about nine years old.
It’s lovely, actually, when you get to this stage, because you find that people have for 20 years been a correspondent and things. And you feel you know them, even when you’ve not met them at all!
Your first books were published in the 1970s, which means that many of your readers have grown up with your books and continued to be fans even as adults.
A lot of letters I get are from students, usually in their first year at university, when they haven’t settled down and they are feeling upset. You know how sometimes it can be very lonely and disturbing. And then they write to me and they say, “I should have been working, but I’ve been reading your books again.” Which is very nice. It just shows that they go on and on, really.
The even more startling thing is that these days people are beginning to write theses and books about me. And, you know, these books are written by someone called “Jones” and I keep thinking, “Who is this Jones?” And they find things in the books that are definitely there, all of them, but, you know, I hadn’t realized they were.
Something else that’s comforting about your books is a theme that runs through so many of them, that everyone has different abilities.
Yes, that’s right, and that some of [those abilities] come disguised as disabilities, actually. I think I’ve thought about this fairly intensely, because I am dyslexic myself, and it was particularly difficult to learn to write, not so much to learn to read. And I still, if I’m a bit tired or not quite well, I still can’t remember which way around d’s and b’s go. That sort of thing. Oh, and I’ve failed three driving tests because the examiner said “turn right” which is, in England, the difficult way to turn, that’s what he meant me to do, to cross the traffic, and I turned left instead.
I’ve read that you’ve said Cat Chant [a recurring central character in the Chrestomanci books] is slightly autistic. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, you know he has very great difficulty telling people things. It’s a mild form of autism. He’s not completely turned in on himself, but he is rather. This is how autism seems to be. I mean the worst cases. The child is almost unapproachable by other people. But in the case of Cat, he is [mildly autistic]. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be so much under the thumb of his elder sister. I mean, it does make you victim material, very much, to be sort of semi-autistic. Always, when I’m thinking and writing about Cat, I know that he’s not going to tell people anything properly…. It’s a sort of social activity that’s beyond him. Such people can learn of course, and do. But when you’re a child it’s an extreme difficulty.
Do you currently have any plans for more books with Charmaine and the other characters from House of Many Ways? It felt like the beginning of something.
Yes, it did, rather, didn’t it! Not so far, no. But I can always, you know, wait and see. That’s what I usually do. I wait and see if something comes up. And it may do. I really don’t know.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a one-off, which is so extraordinary I can’t at the moment describe it. I haven’t finished it, you know. It’s a real puzzler, this one. But I’ll tell you its title; it’s going to be called Enchanted Glass.
Ah, that sounds very--
It sounds interesting, doesn’t it!
I think I’ve finished all my questions. Is there anything you’d like to add?
The troubling thing about that is that sooner or later is that most of my books come true eventually, and I shouldn’t have written that Lubbock.
My knees are knocking. I shall obviously meet a giant insect at some point.
Yes, I remember when I first interviewed you, you told me your books come true.
I’m sure they do. I mean, I will do it, I’ll put in all sorts of things. And you never know which bit is actually going to come true, so you might as well. I mean maybe not a giant insect, it may just be simply that I walk through one of the doors in my house and find I’m somewhere else. You never know!